How the Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel Convinced Me to Support Gay Marriage


I am aware that the title of this article may be divisive and raise the ire of some, as the orthodox Jewish community has been less than supportive on the subject. As a rabbi I am also fully cognizant of the biblical prohibition on certain non-heterosexual relations. Yet my support of gay marriage is in sync with my theological views. For anyone who accuses me of reading from different texts, or being tainted by my travels, I can assure you that my attitude is that of a rational, religiously minded person.


Over the past few weeks I have been to Israel and the Iberian Peninsula. I have seen firsthand the consequences of respectable theocracies forcing their standards on society. While I may take exception to positions taken by the Israeli rabbinate and the Church on many social issues, I am also cognizant that I have few political friends in the world and therefore must be careful not to alienate the remaining ones. In expressing my opposition to policies that I find abhorrent, I want to be clear that it is solely the policies that I find offensive and not those who blindly, albeit piously, follow their leaders.


Rabbinic control over declaring who is a Jew, conversions, and civil marriage in Israel often causes suffering. One may reside in Israel, be granted citizenship via the law of return, and have a legally validated marriage performed in Cyprus.  However, questioning of one’s lineage can cause devastating humiliation and hurt. An Israeli can certainly lead a secular life (albeit with certain inconveniences), yet it amazes me that some have the gall to question the authenticity of their heritage. Thankfully observance alone is not the determining factor in deciding one’s Jewishness, because many observances of the uber-right are inconsistent with my idea of Judaism. As I don’t want to be forced to follow their interpretations of Judaism, I doubt they would want to adhere to mine.  Would they acquiesce to my determination that all who don’t believe in the State of Israel, say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut, or refuse to serve in the IDF are also not Jews. Should we exclude those who convert under their un-sacred mandate by refusing to afford them any rights or benefits? Or perhaps we should follow their approach and rescind the conversions of anyone that post conversion becomes so fanatically influenced that they no longer associate as Jewish according to my narrow definition?


I followed my visit to Israel with a visit to Toledo and the church of Santa Maria La Blanca and Gerona, the birthplace of the Rambam and Rabbeinu Yonah. I am not usually enamored with visiting churches, but the church in Toledo has long ceased functioning as a church. It is one of a few pre-inquisition synagogues left standing.  At one time it was turned into a church, but now is a vast museum of nothingness. It is an edifice that highlights theocracy gone wild; a museum run by a Catholic order trying to absolve the church of any wrongdoing in the expulsion of the Jewish people from Spain. They seemingly refuse to acknowledge the guilt, shame, and responsibility of the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews who refused to give up their heritage and adhere to Christian doctrines. Sadly I can neither forgive nor forget, nor do I believe their guilt can be easily absolved. Why are there are no cries from the church (whose voice doesn’t waver in support of Palestinian claims) to hand back the trillions of dollars of property they stole from the Jewish people in Spain, Portugal and other European countries over the past millennia?


In Gerona, no hint of anything Jewish remains. Instead, the town whitewashed the past and boasts how the spread of Gerona Jewry positively influenced the world. They barely mention the expulsion and forced conversions and to the casual observer it would appear that one day the Jews just upped and left or decided to embrace Christianity. No excuses, no shame, no guilt, and definitely no apologies or requests for forgiveness.Like the Nazis, they procured deeds of sale of Jewish land and procured these deeds through coercion or threats of death.


I know some may ask why I go to places that torture my soul? Why can’t I just go to Disney World and forget the reality of the past in fantasy land? No, I’m not a masochist nor do I take pleasure in criticizing religion. Actually, my travels help to broaden my perspective on many relevant issues facing our world. It gives me an understanding of the dangers that can arise when theology mandates social matters. It allows me to see firsthand the danger that arises when one religion or religious persuasion decides and dictates that only their philosophy is valid.


If we allow the Bible’s perspective on marriage to be the law of the land, then whose Bible do we choose? Shall we then also abide by Catholic canon when it comes to divorce? Should we perhaps allow Sharia law to cut off the hand of a thief or condone the honor killing of a daughter who embarrasses her family? Can the slippery slope ever end?


If the ultra-orthodox Shas rabbi has his myopic views validated by the judicial system, then you and I will be his next victim. My Judaism will certainly be questioned. It could be that he dislikes that my siddur is translated into English, or that I stand for the prayer of the State of Israel. Perhaps he would dislike the clothing the clothing I choose to wear, or my son’s profession. Who knows what will be the excuse needed to forcibly control the masses and subjugate them to the will of the few. It’s happened before, why can’t it happen again? It’s happening today in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Libya; the world is so much smaller than we imagine.


As for the topic of gay marriage, it’s not that I would personally officiate at a gay wedding. But there are many things that are permitted in a secular society that I choose not to do. And I’m grateful to live in a society that allows me to choose to be as uniquely different as I want. I can dress as I wish, I can wear strange looking black boxes on my arm and head even to chagrin of others. In a tolerant democracy no one has the right to tell me what I may or may not do, nor how I should practice my religion.  As a member of a religious minority, it behooves me to boldly stand up in support of the rights of all minorities, even those whose behaviors and practices vastly differ with my own ideology. If I can’t accept others, why should I expect others to accept me?


So, thank you Rabbi David Azoulay, the religious services minister and member of the Sefardi Shas Party in Israel, for opening my eyes. I am truly distressed by your insensitivity and your determination to wipe out two thirds of the global Jewish world whose practices are different than yours. We sadly remember the death of the six million but can never bring them back. You and your group of zealots want to eradicate over ten million Jews, but your sadistic agenda will be short lived. Shame on you, shame on your political party, and shame on all the rabbis and politicians who remain silent.


I finally understand the deeper significance of the James Bond film, Live and Let Die. The meaning of life is dependent on letting matters die. Our life however has purpose only if we allow the prejudices and political agenda of yesterday to die. In the lead up to the ninth day of Av, a day that marks the tragedies of our past, it warrants every Jew to stand up against tyranny and divisiveness. Am Yisrael Chai, the people of Israel will live. Or perhaps in light of the reality of today, we should say: all people of Israel should live regardless of their color or shade in the rainbow.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Jack Engel


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